State Education Standards For Teaching Biology Improve : 13.7: Cosmos And Culture State teaching standards for high school biology seem to have made significant strides in the last 10 years. Commentator and biologist Ursula Goodenough is participating in a review of the standards published by all 50 states and finds reason for optimism about the future.
NPR logo A Toast To The Evolution Of Teaching Standards For High School Biology

A Toast To The Evolution Of Teaching Standards For High School Biology

The evolution of man.

As I recently wrote here, I've contracted with the Fordham Institute to review the biology portions of science-education standards for all 50 states.

I'm pleased to report that each of the 35 standards I've read thus far has at least some sort of unit, however desultory, that uses the phrase "biological evolution." It's not often mentioned in K-8 – apparently this information is considered too challenging, or too sensitive, for young minds – but it shows up in high school in some form or other.

Moreover, some of the evolution units are terrific, lifting up concepts like common ancestry and deep time and citing the many kinds of evidence, including genome sequencing, that support the theory. While the extent to which this material will actually be covered in the classroom is not always clear, at least it's their published standard for all the world to see. This was not necessarily the case even five years ago.

But, thus far, only one set of standards from the 35 states I've looked at so far includes human evolution. Just one. I'll leave it to you to guess which state it is while you read this description of the unit:

Identify basic trends in hominid evolution from early ancestors six million years ago to modern humans, including brain size, jaw size, language, and manufacture of tools. Discuss specific fossil hominids and what they show about human evolution.

The state: Florida.

So why is it that — from this group of 35 states — only the high-school students from Florida will have the opportunity to learn something about their own biological history in public school? Hasn't most everyone by now seen the image of the crouched non-human ape giving rise to the striding human ape? Wouldn't it be far more interesting to a 16-year-old to learn about bonobos and Neanderthals than about peppered moths and finch beaks?

Most everyone can answer such questions. The really tricky part about the evolutionary account is the "man-from-monkey" part. Many, even today, would agree with William Jennings Bryan 100 years ago: "There is no more reason to believe that man descended from some inferior animal than there is to believe that a stately mansion has descended from a small cottage."

But I'm not here today to flog this horse. I'd like instead to lift up a toast to Florida — which I bet was not the state that most of you guessed — as exemplifying the way forward here.

In our last Fordham review we gave Florida's 1999 Standards an F. The word evolution was not used once in the entire document. Instead, in high school, there were two garbled sentences:

The student understands the mechanisms of change (e.g. mutation and natural selection) that lead to adaptations in a species and their ability to survive naturally in changing conditions and to increase species diversity.

Understand how genetic variation of offspring contributes to population control in an environment and that natural selection ensures that those who are best adapted to their surroundings survive to reproduce.

The process of adopting the 2008 evolution-rich Sunshine State standards was fraught with challenges and petitions and hostile resolutions, as detailed here. Florida Citizens for Science was pitted against Florida Family Policy Council and so on. But while the ride can also be expected to be bumpy as other states attempt to strengthen their offerings and, in particular, include human evolution, the overall trajectory seems promising.

Which leads me to predict that our grandchildren will not only be able to explain why 13.7 is a significant number but will also be able to pronounce and identify Australopithecus afarensis.